Warding off Uncle Sam’s Military Tanks

 The VFA epic: renegotiate or abrogate?

with Jeff Rey Sto. Domingo

Gone were the good old days. After series of joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United Sates (US), it is only now that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) came into the limelight of legislative review.

Humanitarian aid and benefits aside, Chair of Legislative Committee on the VFA (LOCVFA) Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago sought to spark a renewed interest on the VFA’s negative implications as much as steady violations in the Philippines. In her sponsorship speech calling for the review of the VFA, Senator Santiago thus concluded that the Senate should “at best express the desire of the thinking Filipino to renegotiate or else terminate the VFA.”

In the light of numerous effects of foreign military presence in the country, particularly that of the US, it would just be best to look at the VFA’s uncompromising and hazy consequences alike – ultimately beyond the purpose of strengthening Philippine-US relations.

Some call for the complete abrogation or termination of the military agreement while few persist for possible amendments to the said concurrence.

Why REVIEW

Signed on 10 February 1998, the VFA is a military agreement between the Philippines and the United States of America. This was ratified in 1999 by the Philippines Senate which grants American soldiers and civil employees of the US Department of Defense with special rights and privileges to visit and conduct joint military activities in the Philippines.

Communist groups such as the New People’s Army (NPA) are some of the target parties that the VFA had stressed to being removed. And the existence of US military troops are said to be ‘of big help’ on their removal. Undersecretary Edilberto Adan states that the VFA will be benefiting us on national security defense system. He said that modernization of defense materials will help us in being equipped with newly trained military bases. However, there is a need to prepare financially on our part.

Despite years of VFA’s continuity, though, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) somehow remains Southeast Asia’s most poorly equipped. “Our country is not even among top military aid recipients of the US,” said Santiago.

By VIRTUE of LAW

Contrary to what the pro-VFAs suggest, there is less advantage and more of a suicide in retaining the VFA without considering whether there has been any constitutional “breach.” This caused a greater annoyance among people that shaped their basis of putting an end to the VFA.

Article II, Section 1 of the agreement mentions that US personnel will be allowed to enter in the country even without visa and passport. Furthermore, Articles VII and VIII exempt US military supplies of being charged of taxes. Article 5, on the other hand, gives full legal immunity of US personnel for crimes committed in the country. Accordingly, almost all cases that involve US personnel will be handled by the US jurisdiction and custody. These instances put us more into harm and injustices.

It is clear as well that American government considers the VFA as an executive agreement. Hence, the pursuit of the VFA will violate the Philippine Constitution, chiefly Article 18, Section 25 which states that there shall be no more foreign military bases, troops or facilities in the country “except” by virtue of a treaty.

DEFINITELY a NO-NO

At the same time expert on International Law, Santiago states that the US does not see the VFA as a treaty. The abolition of VFA, as a result, does not require a dialogue of approval from the president, which means, that any member of the senate may campaign on ousting the VFA.

After disadvantages emerged, various parties strongly demanded to terminate the VFA based on several grounds. Firstly, the power of the AFP to exercise full military jurisdiction within the Philippine territory will be lessened. Secondly, the government would be pushed to exempt the US forces from tax, charges, duties, visa regulation and accountability. On national security, the US military will have no obligation to declare whenever they wish to put up nuclear weapons on board vessels within the Philippine area of responsibility. Another reason is that the presence of military troops may greatly affect our campaign on preserving the natural environment and ecosystems. Finally, there would be various adjustments on military budget allocation.

The VFA should have been eradicated due to multiple harassments on Filipino women. Past experiences showed the growth of prostitution industry where US military troops are based and it is threatened to grow as we retain the VFA.

ATENEANS on the VFA

In an effort to get close with various sectors in the country, the US Embassy held a roundtable discussion on Philippine-US ties with students of the university last 9 November 2010.

Different organizations in the Ateneo like the Supreme Student Government (SSG), ThePILLARS Publication, Remontados Debate Society and the Social Sciences students as well as the Office of Student affairs were present. Ms. Joy Yamamoto, political advisor to the US Embassy represented the US. Issues ranged from cultural exchanges between the two nations up to economic relationships that currently exist. Nonetheless, students were unable not to touch and dwell on political issues, specifically the VFA.

ThePILLARS former editor in chief Francis Perdon cited that the differences that arise in the legal framework in both countries contribute to disparities in the prosecution and trial process whenever violations by participating troops and soldiers were committed.  Perdon especially pointed to the case of the Subic Rape Case. “To which justice system are the suspects   of violations liable?,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, SSG President Gerard Edgar Surtida questioned the motives of the US in carrying a military agreement with our country. Hence, he called for the abrogation of the VFA.

Yamamoto, trying to ease the apparent tension on opinions, said that the Philippines has the discretion to continue or to abolish the agreement and for certain, “the US will respect the decision.” But at present, she maintains that our own legislators and government leaders are responsible in forming such decision.

BACK or BUCK?

As chair of the LOCVFA, Santiago presented Senate Resolution no. 1356 entitled “Resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that the Department of Foreign Affairs should seek to renegotiate the VFA with the US, and in case of denial, should give notice of termination of the VFA.”

The said resolution was adopted by the Philippine Senate on 23 September 2009 as Adopted Resolution no. 205.

Senator Santiago is persistent in lobbying for the termination of VFA. In a letter dated 22 November 2010, Santiago, a former editor in chief herself, “hoped that school publications will join the campaign to abrogate the VFA” despite blatant pressure from the US government.

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, for the meantime, signaled his openness towards the issue but failed to speak of concrete measures in reviewing the VFA not to mention the ostensibly negative outcomes.

ONLY HOPES

Filipinos have just held today a bundle of confidence that they can achieve full independence. We were once captured by the US military troops, and multiple times have we encountered human rights violations. Our economic relationship with the US is enough to support our economic development. The strengthening of the Philippines-US ties through the VFA is just another harmful instance which might contribute to the loss of freedom.

Let our own people police us, after all we are the ones who truly adhere to the constitution that we cared for to follow.

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